Forty-five Special Olympics Southern California athletes from Ventura and Santa Barbara County learned a handful of tips from a pro football player Thursday night at Ventura College.
The athletes came prepared with some end zone celebration routines, too.
Los Angeles Rams All-Pro punter Johnny Hekker led the athletes through six drill stations as part of the third stop on the Rams FUNdamentals Football Camp.
“The athletes were ready and willing,” Hekker said. “We threw a lot at them, different skills it takes to be effective in football.”
Among the athletes in attendance was local athlete Juan Aleman, who has competed with Special Olympics for 12 years. Learning new skills and executing on-the-spot was no daunting task — it was a lot like his introduction to Special Olympics and sports, in general.
When he was first approached about becoming an athlete, Juan was hesitant and didn’t have an interest in sports. Once he gave it a try, the confidence bloomed.
That’s the attitude he took to the football field.
“How do you know until you play?” Juan said. “Just try it.”
Whether the athletes were testing their arm strength, catching passes or kicking field goals, the enthusiasm was high. Successful attempts were capped by their best dance moves. In-between, there were plenty of laughs.
Football players from Ventura College assisted with the drills, which were followed by a Punt, Pass and Kick competition.
Steven Nolasco, 19, said the opportunity to volunteer and bond with the athletes was “a blessing.” Any preconceived notions of their abilities were checked on the sidelines.
“Not a lot of people can do this,” he said. “They did pretty well. Everybody here did great today… and I’d bet you, better than a lot of people would do.”
Jessica Simon, an athlete for 31 years and current Global Messenger for Special Olympics Santa Barbara, enjoyed the opportunity to showcase her talents.
“Competing, for me, comes very naturally,” she added. “It comes from my mom and my brother and sister.”
A special teams star in the NFL, Hekker was partial to the kicking drills. Among his favorite moments were the athletes’ determination to make the next attempt better than the previous one.
“They got through the nerves and everyone improved,” Hekker said. “Every second kick was better than the first, and that’s what these camps are all about.
“Everyone had fun and there were smiles on everyone’s faces. I think the spirit of sportsmanship and appreciation for the sport was very high.”
Inside the SOSC is a blog written by staff member Tracy McDannald. It is a more feature-style approach to looking inside what makes Special Olympics Southern California so unique, so special. It is meant to explore the people and their stories. One word at a time.